Should You Go "Carbon Neutral"?

  • Blog Post by: Kim Carlson
  • May 21, 2010 - 8:21 AM



Here a carbon, there a carbon, everywhere a carbon-carbon.  So much talk .  But what the heck is “carbon neutral”?    It sounds about as interesting as an idling car or a fizz-less soda. Switzerland was neutral. Can something neutral with no positive or negative effect, be good?  Can carbon, a basic element, be bad or something that needs to be -- god forbid -- neutralized?

What is Carbon Neutral?

To understand carbon neutrality along with the “why” and “how” to get there, understand that a carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases a.k.a. “carbon” caused or emitted by an organization, event, product, household, or even, - -gasp - -a person.  

Pretty much everything we do in our daily routine at home and work involves burning carbon and emitting it into the atmosphere as pollution (greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change). Most everything we buy is made by using energy from coal powered power plants. Our homes and workplaces are heated and cooled by burning some kind of carbon based fuel.  Our cars are powered with carbon-based gasoline. The foods we eat, particularly an animal-based diet of meat and dairy, have carbon implications.  At the end of the day,  we all have a carbon footprint whether we know it or not. 
Fear not, carbon footprints can be measured and reduced. The size of a carbon footprint indicates the amount of resources being used.  Anytime we can reduce the size of our carbon footprint, we are also using fewer resources, creating fewer greenhouse gases and saving money – all good things. Once the size of a carbon footprint is known, the footprintee can figure out where it can be reduced or possibly, neutralized. 
Steps to neutralizing your family’s carbon footprint:
Step #1: Measure it. Find a simple online calculator to help you get a feel for how large or small your footprint is currently. The EPA has a simple user-friendly carbon footprint calculator .     If you are a business, you can hire an engineering firm to give you a precise carbon footprint  or if you are a small business a simple free online calculator may give you enough information. One example is CarbonFund .org . These free online calculators for a small business or a household will work well enough to point you in a reduction direction.
Step #2: Reduce it.   Once you have your benchmark or intitial carbon footprint calculation, record it and work on reducing it. Changing simple everyday behaviors will have the most impact: reducing your gasoline use by consolidating errands, managing your phantom power loads with power strips, rethinking your heating or cooling comfort zone, tightening up your home, recycling, eating more vegetables and buying products made from recycled and renewable materials.  
Step #3: Offset it.   Once you have taken all of the reasonable steps to reduce your carbon footprint, as far as you can, you can contemplate offsetting  the rest. First, re-measure your new and improved smaller footprint on one of the sites above. Then, find a carbon credit or carbon offset firm and purchase yourself to neutrality or near neutrality. Everyday consumers have been purchasing carbon offsets for travel for years. The underlying rationale is that carbon offsets allow purchasers to neutralize the greenhouse gases that they can't eliminate from their carbon footprint  through reductions.  The carbon offset firms take your money and use it to support a variety of emissions reduction initiatives. You get the "pass" for your pollution because the carbon offset company is offsetting your emissions by reducing emissions elsewhere in the global system.  The companies that sell the offsets or credits often have online calculators so that you can see how much of your footprint will be offset by your payment. 
Cautions with carbon offset companies
Many non profits and for profit companies are in the game of selling offsets these days. They are somewhat controversial as they are not necessarly regulated.   So be sure to investigate the company’s history and reputation thoroughly prior to paying for offsets. Also make sure the projects that the offset company is engaged in, matches your values.   Do you want to support alternative energy initiatives close to home or tree planting on another continent? Different offset companies, support different emission reduction intiatives.

Local Offset Opportunities

Buying “green power” (though not called an offset program) through your utility provider is, in a sense, buying carbon offsets and  is a regulated program. Power companies all over the U.S. offer green power as an option to their customers. When you purchase green power you are paying to support renewable energy efforts and other emission reduction initiatives in your area.   Purchasing green power won’t necessarily make you completely “carbon neutral” but it is a simple way to get reduce your carbon footprint. Find a green power program near you: Green Power Network .



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